H. P. Lovecraft, “Collected Stories” (Conclusions)

I have just finished up with the Library of America collection of H. P. Lovecraft’s stories. While I have read some of his stories previously, I never read through his major stories systematically before.  Five stories wrapped up the volume. “The Shadow over Innsmouth” is about a young student who visits the Massachusetts town of Innsmouth to discover a cult worshiping Dagon, and worse a population of half-fish people. In the end he decides to embrace his family legacy and embrace a transformation into one of those creatures. “The Dreams of the Witch House” connects the Cthulhu mythos to new developments in uncertainty in math and science at the turn of the last century. In this story, a math student investigates the Arkham “Witch House” and learns of its role as a portal. It is particularly interesting for its use of mathematics as a device of horror and the unknown. The student ends up a sacrifice victim of yet another cult to the Elder gods.  “The Thing on the Doorstep” tells the story of the killing of an aparently insane man, who was able to reside in other people’s bodies and even corpses. “The Shadow Out of Time” is about the “Great Race” of aliens who visit Earth through body possessions. Finally, “The Haunter of the Dark” is notable as the only story in the collection with Nyarlathotep as an antagonist.

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I avoided reading Lovecraft in my youth, despite an almost total mastery of his works by a fair number of my close friends. I knew the name early enough and he may even be the first American writer I knew by name (saving for children’s writers, of course). Of course, I knew of his works my osmosis and by the massive cultural influence he had. Lovecraft’s works have inspired writings that far surpass in quantity his original works. (Can anyone show me an anthology of stories inspired by the works of Herman Melville?) He has also inspired board games, role playing games, music, a “NecronomiCon,” and more B-films than most of us would want to watch. As I was considering before, there is something odd about this popularity considering the values of the American people, focusing on progress, freedom, personal autonomy, equality (and let’s not forget Christianity). If we look at some of the major components of Lovecraft’s writings we can see that they seem to run at odds with these values. In other words, Lovecraft is perhaps not what Tocqueville would have predicted to be one of the most important cultural artifacts of a democracy.

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1. Cargo Cult religions pop up all over the world based on the worship of indifferent, powerful, aliens.
2. Science fails to explain the world.
3. Fear is the primary emotion of humanity.
4. Knowledge should be feared and the curious are punished.
5. The senses are incapable of describing most of the universe.

So what can we make of this?

I am wondering now if Lovecraft’s popularity and cultural influence is akin to the rise of religious fundamentalism or new religious movements in this country. (I cannot speak to Lovecraft’s popularity outside of the English-speaking world. He is certainly mostly unknown in Taiwan.) Perhaps we can return to Lovecraft’s conservatism for an answer to this. The core of his conservatism seems to be directed at the consequences of industrialization: the city, immigration, manufacturing.  In “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” a small town is literally left behind by the rest of the world.  What was once a vibrant merchant town because a marginalized fishing town, just barely scraping by.  That trope shows up in other stories as well, showing the entire communities left behind by progress and modernity.  Innsmouth was actually once quite a cosmopolitan place, with many Pacific Islanders living there as a byproduct of New England’s place in Pacific trade. When being left behind, what did Innsmouth turn to but the “Esoteric Order o’ Dagon.” Is this not a reading of late capitalist America.  Never fully industrialized (it is far too big for that), with huge sections of the country filled with truck stop towns, old mining villages, and rust belt cities, America has been hit hard by global capitalism’s tendency to bypass the areas that are not of immediate value. Facing the uncertainty of liquid modernity, people turned to fatalism of the unknown (comforting themselves that it is unknowable), new religions or revived old faiths.  In this sense, maybe we can identify and describe the malevolent external horrors that so terrified Lovecraft and his characters.  Perhaps it is in an embrace of the religious realm that many of us were capable of understanding a world that really is indifferent to us.

I still think that unknowability is politically vapid and works to confine us and makes excuses for inaction, I do think its popularity is at least explicable.

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H.P. Lovecraft, Collected Stories (1919-1928): Reaction and Knowledge

Frederic Jameson, in his book Archeologies of the Future makes the point that the fantasy genre tended to be conservative in its themes and sentiment, while science fiction almost had to be utopian because instead of reconstructing the past into new forms (like fantasy does) science fiction requires a recreation of our potentials. (I am simplifying his point of course.)  For instance, Tolkien conjured an idealized mythical past, while Martin is doing the same to the high Middle Ages.  To make a more specific point, hippies reading The Lord of the Rings perhaps failed to notice that the entire story involved the restoration of autocracy (“the return of the King”).  As Thomas Paine would remind us, the restoration of a monarchy by a good king is one thing, but as his children would likely be losers and genetic degenerates.  One could go beyond that and see the restoration of normalcy after the destruction of “the One Ring”  as an ending of a Promethean spirit, suggested in Sauron’s effort to use craft to overcome the limitations of nature.

Others have suggested that horror fiction may have all sorts of hidden class assumptions as well. Zombies are mindless consumers, or exploited workers and in these stories the heroes are inevitably Herculean figures attempting to tame a world gone mad.  See The Many-Headed Hydra for more on the class dimension of the Hercules myth. Vampires are the glorified elite, beautified and perpetual (much like how capitalists would like to see themselves).  This brings us to H. P. Lovecraft, one of the most important figures in modern American fantasy and horror writing.  It is rather banal to point out that Lovecraft was a conservative in every sense of the word. He idealized Europe, hated the cities, had strong racist tendencies, and feared threats to the social order.  I want to use these posts on Lovecraft (I plan on four or five) to investigate and understand the nature of his conservatism and see if there is any hope to applying Lovecraft’s writings in the age of Occupy.

The Library of America edition of Lovecraft’s writings came out in 2005. Since then the LOA has aggressively (and admirably) been expanding the canon to include science-fiction, supernatural fiction, and crime novels.  This particular collection brings together 28 stories from throughout his career, but the highlights are the longer works (really novellas) such as “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” and “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” Everything essential is here and the works range throughout his different periods and fully describe his multiverse.

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The period between Lovecraft’s birth in 1890 and the publication of “The Call of Cthulhu” may be seen as his formative years, before he put together the universe he is most well-known for.  Lovecraft started writing as soon as he could pickup a pen, writing his own versions of Homer at the age of 8. His father died of syphilis and Lovecraft became a bookish, introverted, and unstable child. He has a nervous breakdown at ten. Recovering from that he began a life-long interest in amateur astronomy and started some journals. In his teenage years, he started writing fiction, while continuing work on amateur astronomy. His social networks seems to be largely epistolary at that time.  He started publishing aggressively in pulp journals when he turned 30, around the time his mother died.  All of this time, Lovecraft lived in New England, but he did travel to New York. It was only after his 1924 marriage to Sonia Greene that Lovecraft moved to New York, which, if we are to believe his writings, he hated and feared.

This documentary gives a good background to Lovecraft.

I do not want to focus on his racism or equivocate on his statements. The documentary features some voices equivocating on his racism in rather silly ways.  There were plenty of non-racist voices and plenty of history that makes Lovecraft’s racism and xenophobia clearly odious and vile. Lovecraft’s racism comes out of his strange conservatism and rejection of the very concept of human progress.  In almost all of these earlier stories, the central argument of Lovecraft’s writing is the danger of knowledge, and by extension science and progress. This makes him at the least anti-Promethean and very likely anti-humanist.  Even Lovecraft’s creation of describable or unspeakable creatures, thoughts, or phenomenon suggests that he had serious doubts about the potential of writing to fulfill its job. The proper place for knowledge is locked away and not investigated.  It is not only that humans are not ready for that dangerous knowledge but also that humans will likely never be capable, mentally, to handle the true horrors of the world. In the early story “The Statement of Randolph Carter,” the narrator says: “The weird studies of Harley Warren were well known to me, and to some extent shared by me. Of his vast collection of strange, rare books on forbidden subjects I have read all that are written in the languages of which I am master. . . As to the nature of our studies–must i say again that I no longer retain full comprehension? It seems to me rather merciful that through reluctant fascination than through actual inclination.” (2) Of course, these studies do lead to a horrific end for Warren.  The same can be said for “The Outsider”, which describes a horrific monster who comes to knowledge about himself by walking out in daylight and eventually seeing a mirror.  In the pulpish “Herbert West–Reanimator” the forbidden knowledge is the science of life itself. West experimetns with reviving the dead.  This too, ends in a horrific disaster.

In fact, you can open up almost any page and find a description warning against humans sticking their nose in places where they do not belong (intellectually or physically) or suggesting the incapacity of the senses. This is perhaps an even more profound anti-humanism and the real base of Lovecraft’s vision.  Here are some examples from these early stories:

“An acute terror now rose within me, for here were anomalies which nothing normal could explain.” (“The Rats in the Wall,” p. 89)  Is there anything like this in real nature

“The more I analyzed the less I believed, and against my newly opened mind there began to beat grotesque and horrible analogies.” (“The Lurking Fear,” p. 73) So studying a phenomenon makes it harder to understand and an open mind courts horrors.

“Such a thing was surely not a physical or biochemical impossibility in the light of a newer science which includes the theories of relativity and intra-atomic action.” (“The Shunned House”, p. 114)

The description of the Cthulhu statue. “obviously of modern origin. Its designs, however, were far from modern in atmosphere and suggestion; for although the vagaries of cubism and futurism are many and wild, they do not often reproduce that cryptic regularity which lurks in prehistoric writing. And writing of some kind the bulk of these designs seemed certainly to be; though my memory, despite much familiarity with the papers and collections of my uncle, failed in any way to identify this particular species, or even to hint at its remotest affiliations.” (“The Call of Cthulhu,” p. 169)  Suggests the impossibility of taxonomy or knowledge even of a archaeological relic.

The logical conclusion of Lovecraft’s dilution of the senses and knowledge is our inability to really understand the world at more than a visceral level and a deep suspicion over any attempt to improve it.  If we were to describe class or political power in the same way that Lovecraft describes natural phenomenon, we would be helpless to confront their realities.  An example could be something like this: “The eldritch overseer held sway over the horrified factory floor workers with an aura and power that is unexplainable.” It does not recommend itself much as analysis or program for action. Furthermore, we have countless example of science, technology, and knowledge making concrete and measurable improvements in human life. In this way, I think I want to defend the doomed scholars who live out their lives studying the forbidden knowledge. They are the real Promethean heroes in Lovecraft’s stories.

 

Isaac Bashevis Singer, “The Spinoza of Market Street”

I ended last post with a suggestion that we can take Singer’s descriptions of a conservative, inward-looking world under threat of external forces as an opportunity for liberation.  What these demons, devils, ghosts and the like challenges was the static moral world of the peasant community.  This is a moral order reinforced in many cultures through folklore.  Grimm’s fairy tales, for instance, often end with a return to normalcy after a threat is confronted or to some for of justice being meet out by the cosmos (think of “The Juniper Tree”).  I wondered last time whether we should embrace the devil and refuse to “serve in heaven”.  No small amount of the moral universe of the religious community and the peasant commune is odious to say the least: oppressive marriages, fear of outsiders, wasteful religious traditions.  And as many of these same themes are worked out in The Spinoza of Market Street I thought I would on this some more.

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I want to take the other approach and try to look at these external threats from the perspective of the peasant moral universe.  It is relatively easy for outsiders, who do not benefit directly from the traditional rural community to see it as backward and reactionary at best, oppressive and delusional at worst.  James Scott has written a great deal about the moral universe of the peasant.  In his Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance he explores this moral universe’s confrontation with modern capitalism.  “The historically given, negotiated, moral context of village life is one in which, if only ideological, the cards are stacked against the newer forms of capitalist behavior.  This moral context consists of a set of expectation and preferences about relations between the well-to-do and the poor.  By and large, these expectations are cast in the idioms of patronage, assistance, consideration, and helpfulness.  They apply to employment, tenancy, charity, feast giving, and the conduct of daily social encounter.  They imply that those who meet these expectation will be treated with respect, loyalty, and social recognition.  What is involved, to put it crudely, is a kind of ‘politics of reputation’ in which a good name is conferred in exchange for adherence to a certain code of conduct.” (Jame Scott, Weapons of the Weak, 184–185).  For Scott, capitalism broke down this moral order based on reciprocity.  The response of peasants in various times and contexts was resistance.  This same argument was made in the field of Chinese history by Roxann Prazniak and Prasenjit Duara.  Both considered how peasants responded to the destruction of what Duara called the “cultural nexus of power,” or, to put it simply, the moral economy of peasant life.  In both authors’ perspective, the destroyer was modernity in its manifest forms.  For these thinkers, the peasant world was conservative, but it was collectively lived and cooperative.  Most importantly, the ruling classes were bound by the same moral universe.  They were a part of it and their right to command the society, to tax it, or to exploit it ended when the survival of the peasants was threatened.  This is perhaps what made “The Gentleman of Cracow” such an attractive figure. He promised to restore the normalcy that was devastated by a drought.

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In The Spinoza of Market Street we start to see evidence of the threats facing the Eastern European peasant community in the later nineteenth century.  As in other peasant cultures of the time, the shtetl was under threat from encroaching capitalism and the state.  In these stories, the state is still largely a distant threat, but it is a threat and it does challenge the moral order of the village.  In “The Shadow of a Crib” a new doctor arrived.  To help secure his position in the town he sided with the values and politics of the town against that of the Russian state.  “The apothecary, the mayor appointed by the Russians, the notary public and the Russian authorities were all partisan to Dr. Chwaschinski.  Since Yaretzky [the newcomer] did not attend church, the priest maintained that the doctor was no Christian but an infidel, perhaps a Tartar — and a heathen.  Some suggested that he might even poison people.  He could be a sorcerer.  Bu the destitute Jews of bridge street and the sand flats patronized Dr. Yaretzky.” (206)  The real test came during the conscription, when he aided the Jews by providing (for a fee) deferments for service.  More broadly than the state, and much more visible in most of the stories, is the mobility caused by a changing world more shaped by capitalism than ever.  Inequality led to greater mobility as poor beggars searched for work.  In “The Beggar Said So” we are introduced to a poor man looking for work as a chimney sweep.  In the cornerstone piece of this collection “The Destruction of Kreshev” the readers are introduced to Mendel.  “No one in Kreshev knew quite where this Mendel had come from.  One story was that he’d been a love child who’d been abandoned in the steets.  Others said he was the child of a convert. Whatever his origins, he was certainly an ignoramus.”  (289)  He was also a sexual threat, famous for seducing the women of the town.    Intellectuals trained in distant cities came in with new ideas.  While “the Spinoza” of Market Street spend his life with the classic Jewish philosopher, others came in with more radical worldviews.  One of the principle characters of “The Destruction of Kreshev” was Shloimele, who married Lise – a precious and intellectually-curious young woman.  Shloimele “had studied philosophy and the cabala, and was an adept in mystical mathematics, being able even to work out fractions which are to be found in the treatise of Kilaim.  It goes without saying that he had had a look at the Zohar and “The Tree of Life” and he knew “The Guide to the Perplexed” as well as his own first name.” (293-294)  This intellectualism leads Shloimele to sexual perversions and became a threat to the town’s stability when he convinced his wife to have sex with Mendel.

It is hard to deny that Singer seems to be on the side of the moral economy as it comes under threat of the modern world.  But let us not hastily paint it as social conservatism run amok.  As the scholars of peasant economies and peasant resistance have pointed out, resistance to the encroachment of capitalism and the state could only emerge from the moral argument.  That moral universe may have much we find repugnant but it nevertheless remains a source of significant power.  In the world today, some of the most significant (if possibly doomed) movements against capitalism come from the rapidly disintegrating peasant world (Zapatistas, Maoist rebels in India).